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  1. Opinion

Editorial: HART cuts reflect failure to invest in transit


Catching a bus in Hillsborough County was never convenient. But the ordeal became tougher this month after Hillsborough Area Regional Transit overhauled its entire network. Above, HART planning aide Monica Gonzalez explains the new bus routes to Jerome Valmond, 48, of Wimauma, last week. He said his route was cut.
Catching a bus in Hillsborough County was never convenient. But the ordeal became tougher this month after Hillsborough Area Regional Transit overhauled its entire network. Above, HART planning aide Monica Gonzalez explains the new bus routes to Jerome Valmond, 48, of Wimauma, last week. He said his route was cut.
Published Oct. 13, 2017

Catching a bus in Hillsborough County was never convenient. But the ordeal became tougher this month after Hillsborough Area Regional Transit overhauled its entire network, redrawing bus routes to save money and better serve the vast majority who use the county bus system. This is the reality for communities that starve funding for mass transit and for politicians like Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White, who bemoans cuts to bus service but won't raise money to pay for it.

The Tampa Bay Times' Caitlin Johnston poignantly described the impact on regular bus riders, spending a week at bus stops talking to them about the effects the changes would have on their jobs, health and everyday lives. Elsie Strong, 84, uses a wheelchair and buses to attend her monthly cancer treatments. For the past decade, the Town 'N Country resident has relied on HART, the county's mass transit agency, to get her to everything from social visits to doctor's appointments. She has no family in Florida to help her, she said, and finding her way in a wheelchair through the new routes and timetables will be "very difficult for me."

Not every rider faces the same challenges as Strong. But as Johnston reports, 1 in 5 riders like Strong won't see any help from the changes. And HART officials say commutes will be worse for 10 percent of riders. That means about 4,500 people who depend on the bus because they have no other way to get to work, the doctor or the grocery will face longer, more difficult and more complicated routes. Many will have to leave the house earlier; some will be stranded with no service at all.

HART is doing the best it can with the money it has, overhauling routes to make more efficient use of its limited financial resources. For most of its 43,000 customers, the changes will reduce wait times, add weekend service and extend hours earlier in the morning and later at night — all much-needed to serve workers, students and others who have few if any other transit options. But Hillsborough's transit agency lags behind its peers across the nation by almost every measure, and its budget, at $72 million, remains one of the lowest in the country for an area of its size. With rising costs and limited dollars, HART was forced to redraw its routes to serve the heaviest demand, shrinking the total miles of bus routes by 30 percent, with the heaviest cuts taking place — not surprisingly — in the county's outskirts, where service was already thin.

Service in south Hillsborough, for example, will go from three routes to one for an area that covers about 300 square miles. White, who represents the area, expressed frustration with the cuts this summer, saying south county "got hosed." But White also doesn't believe the agency needs more money. He opposed a suggestion by Commissioner Les Miller to increase the property tax rate for HART, and he has been a vocal opponent of any sales tax increase for transit. With trips in south county accounting for less than 1 percent of HART's overall ridership, cutting expenses here was a financially prudent use of limited tax dollars. White paints himself as a fiscal conservative, then complains when his refusal to make smart investments hurts his constituents.

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HART has been working since the summer to educate riders on the route changes. It needs to continue the outreach and tweak the routes if necessary to address any unforeseen impacts. Still, this plan is a practical strategy for keeping the agency's mission — to promote mass transit — alive. It should explore opportunities for providing first- and last-mile connections between bus routes that could ease the burden on riders struggling to adapt to the new system. But what the agency needs most is leadership on the governing board to confront the reality of its fiscal restraints. The bus system needs more money to meet the demands of a growing metropolitan area, and Tampa Bay needs more elected leaders willing to invest in a more robust transit system. Until then, it shouldn't come as a shock that HART must prioritize and that too many residents cannot count on buses to take them anywhere.

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